“The revolution started in Sidi Bouzid to succeed in Jemna”, proudly launches Tahar Etahri. This retired French teacher looks contentedly at the horizon of date palms caressed by the fine sands of the neighboring Sahara. For more than ten years, the 60-year-old volunteer chaired the Society for the Protection of the Oasis of Jemna, a small town in southern Tunisia.
By his side, the new president, Abdelmajid Belhaj, lovingly inspects the 2,500 date palms planted in this oasis in recent years. It is pollination season and Abdelmajid greets the farmers sitting in the trees. Jamel is one of 150 farm workers hired by the association. “I’ve been working here for four years now, he rejoices, I used to be unemployed. †
“Here we have replaced the state! †
If Abdelmajid Belhaj takes his role as president very seriously, it is because the association has changed the face of his congregation. From the first year, with the help of private donations, the inhabitants earned more than 900,000 dinars in profit (€270,000) thanks to the self-management of these state lands. Hundreds of farm workers have been hired in ten years.
“Here we have replaced the state! † he exclaims, proud to show all the achievements realized in the city and in the oasis, thanks to the profits that have been completely reinvested: a dates market covered and equipped with toilets, work in the schools, a gymnasium for high school students. ..
Tahar Etahri and Abdelmajid Belhaj remember the beginning of this unprecedented adventure in Tunisia. In the midst of the upheavals of the revolution, in January 2011, a dozen residents occupied the palm grove in order to chase away the two private investors who mismanaged it.
“This oasis embodied injustice and looting by the state. So the first thing the young people here did was occupy the palm grove and burn down the police station,” remembers the new president, a 50-year-old with a face scarred by the sun. Moved, his companion evokes the apprenticeship of democracy: “It was the agora, we all debated together and we continued to make collective decisions. †
These lands belonged to their ancestors
First united in a League for the Protection of the Revolution, the inhabitants then founded the Association for the Protection of the Oasis. Anyone who wanted could become a member by paying 30 dinars (10 €). “But we now consider every resident to be a member,” says the former president.
The Jemniens believe that these lands belonged to their ancestors before being confiscated by French settlers in 1964 and then by the state. She had leased the latter to businessmen when the national company that ran the estate went bankrupt. But between independence and nationalization, the inhabitants had paid an amount to the governor of the region for these countries, Tahar Etahri explains with supporting documents. “Some of our ancestors had sold all their jewelry”, he remembers.
Jemna embodies a glimmer of hope
In a bloodless Tunisia, ten years after the revolution, Jemna embodies a glimmer of hope. In 2016, however, the association was threatened by the government. But it survived thanks to the mobilization of civil society. Six years later, President Kaïs Saïed cites them as an example and focuses on the most disadvantaged regions. For Abdelmajid Belhaj, if the association was able to revive Jemna, so can others. “There is more than 500,000 hectares of state land. It is enough to rent them out to communities under self-management.” he believes.
However, the soul of Jemna’s experience is not present in the bill on the social and solidarity economy, according to him, “torpedoed by parliament” in 2020, nor, finally, in the presidential decree promulgated at the end of March “business citizens”† “We expected the president to invite the association and listen to us, but no one came,” he complains without giving up. He argues for the application of a 1995 law that theoretically makes it possible to lease state agricultural land to cooperatives.
A serious economic crisis
“Nothing seems to stop the country’s descent to hell on an economic and social level,” estimates the International Crisis Group in its report on Tunisia published on April 6.
The poverty rate rose from 14 to 21% in one year.
The unemployment rate reached 18.4% of the active population and more than 42% of the young.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates in its March 30 statement that: “Tunisia faces major structural challenges manifested by deep macroeconomic imbalances, very weak growth despite its strong potential, over-unemployment, under-investment and social inequalities”.